Creating Art in a World on Fire

Niki Hatzidis

There are many difficult things about being an artist in this world; financial uneasiness, an uncertain life path, self-doubt, having to work a job that’s not your passion in order to live in a creative city, loved ones not understanding your lifestyle and why sometimes you’re too busy to spend time with them. What happens when you add a rupturing world into the mix? For me it’s a nagging thought, ever present in the back of my mind asking, are there more important things I can be doing?

Like most of the country and the world, I have been watching the repercussions of the abhorrent immigration policy come to a head at the nation’s border. I have been sitting at my computer horrified, feeling helpless, resisting better logic and combing through the cesspool that is the comment section, and wondering what has become of our humanity. Though this has hit particularly hard, perhaps because it involves crying, traumatized children, this has not been the only time I have felt like this in the last two years. And each time, I am overcome with an urge to do something. Anything. Surely we need more people coming forward for positive change? I have this instinct, should it be me? I should work on a campaign. I should quit making art and work for a nonprofit or volunteer or run for office myself! The implied impulse here is to say yes, I should do this. This has to be more important. The hitch: I am an actor.

I have always wanted to be a performer. I’ve been performing since I was a child. If you’re a performer or an artist, you understand that it’s something deeply embedded in your bones. It is the fire in your belly and the fuel for your soul, without which you feel empty. It is as much a part of you as your arm or the color of your eyes or the sound of your laugh. All I want to do in this life is tell stories on stage. Even writing that sentence fills me with this immense guilt, but it’s the honest truth.

I am an informed voter, I write my concerns to those representing me in the government, I donate when I can, but as a working artist, it’s not as frequent as I would like and not a huge amount of money. At times it still doesn’t feel like enough. I don’t have it in me to be a politician. I am useless at sales, so working door to door or on the phones in a campaign will probably not be helpful to anyone. Volunteering is something I would very much like to do but as a freelancer, I don’t have a steady income and any spare hours are spent trying to support myself. Though after this week, I am trying to find a couple hours a week to do this, I still feel overwhelmed, I feel utterly inadequate and I am outraged with myself and the stare of things.

Where do I find solace? Ironically, other’s heartfelt made art. If I need to laugh, I put on a silly sitcom, I read a book by my favorite author to escape my Facebook feed, I go to the movies, museums, listen to music or sometimes see a play. I have been lucky enough to be rehearsing for a show the last few months, and for a few hours a week, my fellow storytellers and I shut out a chaotic world and give voice to women lost to history. It’s in my co-creators, these kind, generous, open mind and heart individuals, where I find hope, laughter, and joy. In times where I have given up on this heartless world that feels like it’s falling to pieces little by little each day, I look to art and feel like the world is worth preserving.

Since the time that humans figured out that language is the best way to communicate, we have been telling stories. From gathering around a fire to a bulky radio in the living room, to the cellphones in our pockets, we have been entertaining each other through tales of love and woe. But it’s always been more than just entertainment. Music, poetry, theater, the Mona Lisa, all have been means of comfort, sanctuary and peaceful escape. It is the most meaningful thing humanity has done.

It is no coincidence that dance halls playing lively, swing music found its height during World War II. Also double features in movie theaters providing a dark quiet space for less than a dollar during the fears of the nuclear age in the 1950’s, and epic poetry written during the Middle Ages; in times of the crusades and deadly plagues. Beautiful art has always come out of dark times in history we thought we could never make it out of in one piece. I believe it was the making and intake of art that got people through those times. We need breaks of beauty and love in times of horror and immense sadness.

If you have time to volunteer or money to donate, or if you just spend a few minutes a day calling your representative, then absolutely do that. We must never stop doing that. But if you’re feeling like making art does not matter in the grand scheme of things, please, please, don’t give up on it. Keep making art. This is your gift, your passion and it needs to be shared, heard and seen. I know that it might seem like a frivolous luxury at times, but we do need it.

I was part of a literary festival in Colorado this month and they had a seminar called Writing in a Ruptured World where they spoke about this very dilemma. Author’s confessed how hard it is to write with everything that is going on in the news; how some days they just don’t want to, and how it doesn’t feel like enough. It might not be every single day, but somehow they find a way to do it. They muster up some motivation and finish their novel, memoir or book of poetry and set it out into the world. On busy commutes, at the end of a long day at work, or just on an afternoon off, people crack open the bindings and they escape into their stories.

Sometimes I contemplate a script I’m writing and say who cares if these two characters fall in love, or if this joke is silly enough or ask if this is too simple and fickle a story to throw out into the either right now. But then I stop and think about the people I made laugh with my writing. Even if it’s a dumb joke about snoring in a short play festival, people relate to it and find it funny. It brings them a little bit of joy. This is my small contribution.

This is why we need art now; a form of escapism, consoling and a breaking from the tension. Even more than that, we need it to give voice to those who can’t scream out. We need to tell the stories of those who are marginalized, who are beaten down or cast aside. We need it as a way to bridge the gap between communities and to show that deep down, we all have the same fears, desires, and needs.

Use your art to open the eyes of communities to our own common stories and histories. Teach art in schools, in nursing homes, or community centers. Set loose the passion that lives within you out into the world. It is worth it. It is making a difference.

It is said that when proposed to cut public arts funding in order to further fund the war in Europe, Winston Churchill said, “well then what are we fighting for?” There is some dispute over whether or not he actually said this. I like to think that he did. I like to think that even in the midst of a seemingly insurmountable world war, someone felt that it was important to preserve and continue making art.

Niki Hatzidis is an award-nominated playwright and actor living in New York City.

Photo: Threepenny Opera, spring 2016. Photograph by Dan Norman.